A soulful survivor takes stock
“If you live by the charts, you die by the charts,” Emmylou Harris, the silvery-voiced roots singer who dissolves genres and owns a dozen Grammys, says conspiratorially. “Let me tell you.”
There are a lot of things that Harris can tell you about American music. Whether it’s being the acolyte Gram Parsons left at the station when he overdosed, the muse for Bob Dylan, Conor Oberst and Willie Nelson, or the nurturer of writers and musicians including Rodney Crowell, Patty Griffin, Ricky Skaggs and Lucinda Williams, Harris has been siren for much of what is good about the music that exists beyond the mainstream.
It’s mid-afternoon, and the sun pours into a living room filled with chintz upholstery and floral wallpaper. It’s a cozy, welcoming place where Harris, 60, lives with her mother, Eugenia, and daughter, Hallie, from her first marriage. Three generations under one roof and the house is bustling with cats and dogs, guitars and the last of a photo shoot that’s spilled over from earlier in the day.
Harris, who’s been a major part of records with Neil Young, Mark Knopfler and Elvis Costello over the last year, is taking a year off. Laughing, she says, “Sometimes just changing your routine is the same as taking a sabbatical, Johnny Cash told me once.”
Though she toured this year -- and has another Southland stop planned for Oct. 10 at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts -- the time between her own albums has given her the opportunity to consider the breadth of her musical odyssey, one that’s exhaustively documented on the four CDs and single DVD of “Songbird: Rare Tracks & Forgotten Gems,” a collection of rarities, demos and collaborations coming out Tuesday. She embarked on a folkie path out of college, was swept up in Parsons’ iconoclastic hippie-hard-country axis, had a run as the woman making country safe for the rock ‘n’ roll masses and participated in the trio projects with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton and in the ethereal Daniel Lanois-produced or -influenced post-Nashville projects.
“Look what she’s accomplished: She freed country music from stereotypes and showed rockers that country was OK,” says Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Director Kyle Young.
“And she showed country people rockers weren’t infiltrators. . . . She sang country without irony when country, rock and folk were worlds apart because she does it without fear, without an agenda. It’s just the things she likes, the cast of musicians, songwriters and artists she brings with her. . . whether it’s the Louvin Brothers or Buck Owens, Sam Bush, Buddy Miller, Gillian Welch or Patty Griffin.
“Because Emmylou likes it, you know it’s good.”
And the rest was history
The Alabama-born Harris, a single mother with a baby in the early ‘70s, was playing four sets a night in Washington, D.C., clubs when Chris Hillman told Parsons, his former Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers bandmate, that she might be the girl singer he was seeking for his hard-country solo project.
Their brief collaboration in L.A. is now legend. “It was very quick. . . that time. . . . We did [his 1972 album] ‘GP.’. . . We did the tour. . . . We recorded ‘Grievous Angel’. . . and he was gone.”
Harris was initially skeptical, as Parsons’ erratic behavior sabotaged sessions, though she loved the Louvin Brothers songs he turned her on to. Finally, it clicked.
“One day, I really heard the genius of his voice, the beauty -- and all that music opened up to me. ‘Angels Rejoiced’ just did it. . . . I was gone, so converted.”
Their last conversation was about the song, which appears for the first time on “Songbird.”
“He knew ‘Angels Rejoiced’ was my favorite song; he called to tell me it didn’t fit the album, so they were putting it on the next album. We hung up, he went to Joshua Tree. . . and that was it.”
Harris pauses for a moment. “It was very unresolved. There was no proper way to grieve -- just throw yourself into music.”
So she did, returning to the vibrant folk/bluegrass scene in Washington, then returning to Los Angeles to begin her solo career and form her noted Hot Band, which included Texan Rodney Crowell.
“Emmy inspires such loyalty because she has so much integrity,” Crowell says. “She’s a poet -- even before she started writing songs -- and that’s what we all respond to. Even more than that voice and the passion is the poetry, the timelessness, choosing the heart over commerce.”
Harris’ choices have at times defied conventional wisdom. When country was slick, she made the unbending “Blue Kentucky Girl,” then followed it up with the Ricky Skaggs/Whites-laden bluegrass triumph “Roses in the Snow.” Inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” and the Glyn Johns-produced “The Ballad of Jesse James,” she made her own concept record, “Ballad of Sally Rose.”
“It was a huge commercial disaster,” Harris says. “I literally did not have enough money to buy a house.”
Producer Paul Kennerly suggested returning to building a record around her voice, and the acoustic gospel Angel Band, featuring Vince Gill, Emory Gordy and Carl Jackson, was born.
“You have to pay attention, not set your agenda in such concrete that you miss what’s really supposed to happen,” says Harris, who went on to record with the bluegrassy Nash Ramblers. A move to Asylum Records -- “where they thought they could get people like Guy Clark and I on the radio,” she marvels -- led to more closed doors at country radio.
“There comes a time when you’re no longer invited to the party,” Harris explains. “It happens to other people too. But if this is what you do, who knows what it’ll be?”
Harris, then teamed with performer and producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Dylan’s “Oh Mercy”). “Wrecking Ball,” their collaboration, sold poorly, racked up raves, won a Grammy and opened the door.
Again set free and afire, Harris wrote the emotionally excavating “Red Dirt Girl,” recorded with friends, and created Spyboy, helmed by Buddy Miller and a few unlikely but potent players.
“Her openness is revelatory,” says producer-guitarist-artist Miller. “Ten years ago when I joined up with the band, she was always listening to something -- and not just in terms of what we were playing, but just music.
“And she gives of herself in a way nobody else does. I actually met her when I asked her to sing on my first record and was told she couldn’t because of a European Hot Band reunion tour. Then I heard she really wanted to. . . and then, literally the day she was leaving, she came and sang on my record.
“Over 10 years, that’s her over and over again. . . . You can hear it in the music, in the shows: Every night, the set would change because she wants to make it about the music and the moment. . . .”
“I do believe like souls attract like souls,” Harris says of the collaborators who’ve crossed her path. “I was fortunate in that I had this creative safety net, people who trusted my instincts and supported me. . . . You’ve got to believe somebody’s in charge, writing the script for you. . . . And when I look around, what else could I think? If I wrote this stuff down, no one would believe it could’ve happened that way.”
It had been years since Harris heard some of the material on “Snowbird.”
“ ‘Mama’s Hungry Eyes’ with Rodney,” she says, counting off a few. “Chrissie Hynde and Beck on the Gram tribute record we did; a version of ‘Immigrant Eyes’ that was Guy Clark’s 60th birthday present; the stuff from '[The Legend of] Jesse James’; ‘Softly & Tenderly’ from the ‘Trio’ sessions [with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton]; the demo of ‘All I Left Behind’; ‘Sonny’ with Dolores Keane and Mary Black, which was a No. 1 track in Ireland. . . “
Her voice, every bit as iridescent in conversation, trails off. These aren’t just songs or moments: Harris can tell you every detail about where, with whom, what happened for each.
“It’s really the same thing as in the beginning,” Harris says. “You know when something’s right, and you’d be upset if you lost that. . . . The devil is the voice inside your head telling you something different, that you can get away with it.
“It always has been about the poetry,” she continues, defining how broad that can be. “There’s poetry in my mother’s pound cake and her pie crust. I am 60 years old and have been doing this for a long time, and it’s harder and harder to get inspired in some ways, and in others, well, all it takes is one song.”
One song is cutting it pretty short. “Songbird’s” four CDs contain 78, each sparkling in its unique beauty. These are the obscure treasures, songs that have never been part of a compilation, and with a new album slated for sometime in 2008, there is still more to come.
Watching her talk so gently, so warmly about her journey, the notion of music as refuge is as obvious as the sweep of snow-white hair that curves around her pristine jaw. She recognizes the Cinderella nature of her story too.
“Maybe I’m guilty of glossing over the facts,” she begins, then resolves with the quiet firmness of a true Alabama belle. “But when I really look at all of it, well, this is what happened.”
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Choice selections from Harris’ ‘Songbird’ collection
Some highlights from Emmylou Harris’ “Songbird: Rare Tracks & Forgotten Gems,” a retrospective box set (in stores Tuesday) that includes 78 audio tracks over four CDs, plus a DVD with 10 video segments.
“Clocks”: The box set leads off with this early recording, an alternate take of a song Harris wrote for her 1970 debut album, “Gliding Bird.” She sounds impossibly young and very much in a Joan Baez/Joni Mitchell vocal mode -- not a bad starting point for any aspiring singer.
“Ooh Las Vegas”: This barn-burner written by Gram Parsons and Rick Grech, from her 1976 album, “Elite Hotel,” is one of the few real rave-ups in a collection that reflects her inherent attraction to the forlorn ballad or narrative. It shows off her ability to scorch a vocal and unleashes some astonishing playing from her Hot Band, especially steel player Hank DeVito.
“Ashes By Now”: It’s been well documented that Harris has unearthed and championed promising songwriters. Her version of this Rodney Crowell song trumps the composer’s own version as well as the 2000 country hit by Lee Ann Womack and illustrates how much deeper a great song can reach in the hands of a great singer.
“1917": Harris teams with Linda Ronstadt, with help from Kate and Anna McGarrigle, on this haunting antiwar reverie by David Olney, making lyrics that aren’t her own sound as if they’re emerging directly from her own experience.
“I Don’t Love You Much Do I”: She’s the duet partner here for Texas troubadour Guy Clark on this cut from his 1992 “Boats to Build” album, showing she’ll go wherever she needs to and sing whatever she’s asked, to associate herself with first-rate songwriting.
“Boy From Tupelo”: Harris long ago proved herself a vocalist of the highest caliber, but her name rarely turned up in the songwriting credits. With her 2000 album, “Red Dirt Girl,” which included this track, she blossomed into a skilled composer of evocative, atmospheric tales exploring the complexities of adult relationships.
-- Randy Lewis